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Despite Coronavirus, the shows did go on(line) — with the Scotsman at the heart of things

Posted on: August 26, 2020 by Mariella Brown

With a revered reputation as ‘The Festival paper’ how do you tackle planning to cover an Edinburgh Festival that may or may not be happening and which is a totally different offering to that of previous years? Roger CoxArts & Books Editor for The Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday, spoke to Behind Local News about how they proceeded.

It’s difficult to describe the thing called “The Edinburgh Festival” to someone who has never experienced it. For a start, it isn’t a single festival but several different ones, all happening at around about the same time during late July and August.

At the centre of it all there’s the Edinburgh International Festival, founded in 1947 in a bid to “provide a platform for the flowering of the human spirit” in the aftermath of the Second World War.

This is where you’ll find a carefully-curated programme of the best opera, theatre, dance, classical and (increasingly) contemporary music from all around the world; big, ambitious, expensive productions happening on the city’s major stages.

In terms of programme size, though, the International Festival is now dwarfed by its upstart little brother, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, which also started in 1947 after a few local theatre companies, miffed at not being able to join in the “official” festival, decided to hold a festival of their own.

Last year, there were 3,841 shows in the Fringe programme, attracting an audience of over 3 million. Some Fringe shows can be terrible, and sell out enormous theatres night after night; others can be brilliant but only ever play to single-figure audiences in pub basements.

Add to that the Edinburgh International Book Festival, which typically puts on over 900 author events in a tented village in Charlotte Square, the Edinburgh Art Festival (50 venues last year, with over 290,000 attendances) and the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo (lots of carefully choreographed soldiering and music outside Edinburgh Castle) and you have the biggest cultural event in the world.

Oh, and there’s also the Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival, which kicks everything off in late July and the Edinburgh Television Festival, which takes place towards the end of August when everyone’s exhausted. Anyway, you get the general idea: typical August, fair bit going on.

This August, though, is anything but typical. In April, as the grim reality of the Covid-19 pandemic hit home, the various different festivals bowed to the inevitable and announced they were cancelling their 2020 editions. For the first time in over 70 years, it seemed, the so-called “festival city” would be without the event that has increasingly come to define it.

Even as these cancellations were being announced, however, there were whisperings about the possibility of running events online, and of certain events that might be able to take place in a physical form in a way that would still comply with lockdown restrictions. All of which, frankly, was a nightmare for a commissioning editor.

In a normal year, we get to see the programmes for all the festivals well in advance, so we can plan our coverage accordingly. But how do you plan for something that may or may not be happening? Something that — thanks to the infinite nature of cyberspace and the open-access remit of the Fringe — could either consist of thousands of virtual shows or hardly any? One thing was certain though: if there was going to be any kind of festival, we needed to be ready to cover it, in whatever form it decided to take.

The Scotsman has covered the Edinburgh Festivals every year since 1947, and brands itself as “The Festival Newspaper” — the festivals are part of our DNA. In a normal year, our readers expect us to run a 20-page Festival supplement every day for the three weeks of the Fringe and the EIF (24-pages on a Saturday) with additional coverage in Scotland on Sunday, in the news section and online. As far as we know, there is no other publication anywhere in the world that produces as much cultural journalism in a comparable amount of time.

It’s not just about what our readers expect though: over the years, The Scotsman has also become part of the fabric of the festivals. One reason many performers bring shows to Edinburgh in the first place is because they understand the power of “FIVE STARS — THE SCOTSMAN” on a poster, and, later in the year perhaps, on an arts council funding application. Our reviewers are renowned for their ability to spot the next big thing, and our Fringe First Awards — presented last year by former winner Stephen Fry — are the gold standard for new writing on the Fringe.

So, tempting as it was, back in April, to simply shut up shop for a year and say “nothing to see here,” we started planning for various different August scenarios. We kept in touch with all the different festivals to make sure we always had a handle on their (often rapidly evolving) plans, and, with most of our usual August revenue streams up in smoke, I had to make a case for the best festival coverage we could reasonably afford while — ridiculously — being unable to provide much meaningful detail about what, if anything, we would be covering.

By late July, a budget had been agreed for five 12-page Festival supplements running every Saturday in August, with additional coverage in the news pages of The Scotsman each day, in Scotland on Sunday and online, but even at that late stage it still wasn’t exactly clear what form the festivals were going to take. Fortunately, though, with perfect dramatic timing, at the last minute they all sprang back to life. The International Festival has programmed a remarkable series of video performances featuring all of Scotland’s national companies, and has figured out a way of creating a live experience (of sorts) by streaming music into Princes Street Gardens.

The Book Festival, after weeks of giving us the same (very short) list of confirmed names every time we asked how their programme was looking, suddenly came good at the 11th hour with a stellar line-up of more than 140 online author events.

The Art Festival has commissioned ten artists to make new work around the city and online — and, as part of a new partnership agreement, in the pages of The Scotsman, making us a (sort-of) festival venue for the first time in our history.

And the Fringe? Well, it’s probably still too early to say how this year’s Fringe will pan out. In line with its open access remit, it’s providing a hub through which artists can promote their work online. The programme is still tiny by the standards of the last few years, but our critics have already unearthed one or two gems and more acts are being added every day.

Did we get our level of coverage about right? Who knows? The main thing, though, is that we at least turned up and had a go — and, of course, without people turning up and having a go, Edinburgh wouldn’t have much of a festival to begin with.

Pictures: Behind Local News